Forty-three years ago today, Feb. 5, 1972, the Hall of Fame enshrined its first African American member, Bob Douglas. It was 13 years after the Hall of Fame opened in 1959 that Douglas became the first black man honored there.
No African American was able to break into the NBA until the 1950-51 season, when the Celtics made Chuck Cooper became the first black player to be drafted to the league. The then-Washington Capitols selected the second and third African American draftees when they chose Earl Lloyd and Harold Hunter a few rounds later.
“Drafting of the first Negro players in the league was a well-kept secret,” read the Post’s article the day after the 1950 draft. “Both Lloyd and Hunter worked out at Uline last week for Coach (Bones) McKinney. In breaking the unwritten taboo, Boston also drafted Duquesne’s Chuck Cooper and Fort Wayne selected Kentucky State’s Ed Thompson.”
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton signed a professional contract with the Knicks in the summer of 1950, becoming the first African American signee to an NBA team. The delay was less pronounced in the NBA than in Major League Baseball, which went more than half a century before Jackie Robinson played a game: the NBA had only been founded in 1946, four years before that quartet was drafted and Clifton signed.
Clifton, who fought in Europe in World War II, got his start with the New York Rens — officially, the New York Renaissance — an all-black professional basketball team started by Bob Douglass. The ballroom at Harlem’s Renaissance Casino and Ballroom served as the Rens’ home court, and the team barnstormed for the next decade, dominating as they did so. They won 88 straight games at one point during the 1932-33 season, and won the first professional basketball championship in 1939 when they beat the intimidatingly named Oshkosh All-Stars at the World Professional Basketball Tournament. That tournament hosted teams from the National Basketball League as well as barnstorming teams like the Harlem Globetrotters.
Douglas owned and coached the Rens from 1923 to 1949, winning more than 2,000 games against black and white teams, alike, despite the heat of substantial racial discrimination. He was elected to the Hall of Fame as a contributor, and his bio calls him “The Father of Black Professional Basketball.” The Post ran an AP story on his election to the Hall of Fame that day. It didn’t mention he was the first African-American to enter the Hall of Fame, and the late-story paragraph on his selection read as follows:
“Douglas owned and coached the New York Renaissance, a top Negro team of the 1930s. The Rens won 2,318 games during Douglas’s 22 years as coach including 88 in a row in 1933. Douglas was born in the British West Indies and now lives in New York.”
When Bill Russell was elected to the Hall of Fame three years later, the first black NBA player to be so honored, he refused to attend his enshrinement ceremony. He cited “personal reasons,” though consensus was he did so because of the belief that the African American pioneers before him were disrespected with little consideration for similar honors. Since Douglas was enshrined as a “contributor,” Russell was the first black player or coach to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Certainly, a shift has occurred since. A Hall of Fame without African American players or coaches is now unfathomable given the names that come to mind when brainstorming basketball’s greatest legends of the past half century. But just forty-three years and a day ago, there were no black men in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Here’s what the story of Douglas’s election looked like in the Post that day, on the sixth page of the sports section: